August 20, 2013

Mitchell's Top Ten, #8: The Fugitive

Each week for the next couple of months, I’ll profile one of the series that appear on my personal Top Ten list. I don’t claim that these are the ten greatest series of all time; that would be presumptuous. However, I do presume to identify those shows that mean the most to me.

These aren’t academic histories or encyclopedic entries; rather, they’re personal memories of shows that, through the years, have brought me delight, influenced my way of thinking and doing, left their indelible traces imprinted on me. Think of it as a memoir of my life as seen on TV.


Dr. Richard Kimble was in a position none of us hope to ever find ourselves. Convicted of murdering his wife, he’d escaped from a train wreck while en route to be executed. He knew he was innocent – he’d seen someone, likely the real killer, running from his house moments before he discovered his dead wife’s body. He knew it, but he couldn’t prove it. Lieutenant Philip Gerard, the man seeking to return Kimble to prison, didn’t care about his innocence or guilt – his job was not to determine what justice was, but to administer it.

And so, against this backdrop, Richard Kimble spent four years as the most wanted man in America, a high-profile escapee trying to stay one step ahead of the law, but seemingly doomed to remain one step behind the man responsible for his predicament.

Through the course of those four years, Kimble had many opportunities to fade into the background, to blend in with his surroundings in such a way that he might be able to stop running. America is a big country after all, and in those pre-Internet days it was even bigger. Without the instant recognition that social media brings, Kimble quite likely could have found a place – Mayberry, North Carolina for example – that would have been far enough out of the way that he could relax for awhile. After all, he’d met and helped enough people during his travels that a virtual underground railroad existed, dedicated to helping him escape. It’s not hard to imagine one of his benefactors helping him get to a place where he’d really be out of reach, a country like Argentina, where he’d be able to practice medicine, grow a beard, perhaps remarry and settle down. Start a new life.

But Richard Kimble didn’t want a new life. He wanted his old life back, or as much of it as was possible.

It wasn’t enough for Kimble to be “free,” in the sense that any man running from the police is ever free. Staying out of the death house was good, but only as a means to an end. And that end was to prove his innocence.

In fact, it’s likely Kimble never would have been executed. A remarkable number of people believed in his innocence. Gerard himself said that Kimble was not a “killer” per se, but a man who had done the one bad thing he’d ever do in his life. A few years as a model prisoner, giving officials no trouble, working diligently in the prison dispensary, perhaps even saving a few lives, and he probably would have been paroled, maybe even pardoned by the governor.

But there would have been that sticky little matter of the murder conviction remaining on the record – if not officially, at least in the minds of many. What Kimble wanted was to prove his innocence, that he was not a good man who’d made a mistake but an innocent man who had suffered due to the mistakes of American justice. And in that effort to clear his name, Richard Kimble was willing to risk his life. After all, if living was the only thing that mattered, a good attorney probably could have gotten the original charge reduced to second-degree, if Kimble had only been willing to plead. But sometimes it’s more important to do the right thing, to fight for the truth, than to simply go on living. For without truth, what good is life?

By asking that question, even unintentionally, The Fugitive was perhaps the most existential series ever seen on TV to that time. Its premise contained a delicate balance: a hero on the run, running both away from and toward something at the same time. And those two things he sought – escape and vindication – could only come from the same source.

I’ve written in the past about how revolutionary, and controversial, The Fugitive was. In an era before Vietnam, before Watergate, when authority was presumed to be right, we had a man whom the system had failed. The police were wrong, the judge and jury were wrong, and after Kimble had escaped we rooted for him to evade the police, cheered those who willingly broke the law in order to help him, imagined that we would have done the same thing as they did had we been in their position. As I say, radical stuff. But even beyond that, the show touched on deeper questions. Who was Kimble, really? Every episode found him in a different place, working under a different name. The jobs he held – trucker, rancher, laborer – were not those for which he’d been educated, and it generally didn’t take long before people saw that he was a man capable of far more than what he was doing. Having changed his appearance, his name and his profession, one couldn’t help but think that Kimble would sometimes lie awake in bed wondering what had become of that man he had always thought himself to be. Even if he were to clear his name, to find the one-armed man and bring him to justice, could he ever be that man again? Could he, in the hoary clich├ęs that are nonetheless true, learn once again to believe, to trust, to love?

The series chose to establish from the outset that Kimble was innocent, that he had not killed his wife.* But was he truly innocent of his wife’s death? Had he not stormed off after their latest argument, he would have been there when the break-in occurred, and perhaps saved her life. Was he, in some sense, responsible for what had happened? And how did that jibe with his own self-image?

*Had this series been made today, not as a revival but as a brand-new idea, I think it’s likely that the producers would have left the issue of Kimble’s innocence an open question. Sure, the premise would go, Kimble claims to be innocent. He says he saw a one-armed man. And many of the people he runs into believe his story. But is it really true? It would have made a fascinating premise, the idea that we don't know for sure, but I suspect that back then having as your series protagonist a man who might actually be guilty of murder would have been a very tough sell. After all, a man wrongly convicted by the system was radical enough.

To its credit, the series didn’t often get bogged down asking these questions – had it done so, it could have lapsed into a Bergmanesque morass of didactic self-doubt that would have slowed each episode down to a painful crawl. But even if they weren’t directly acknowledged they were there nonetheless, hanging over Kimble’s every action (and present in David Janssen’s brilliantly understated portrayal), and their existence only added to the richness of the show’s premise.*

*Along with its presentation of an America that doesn’t really exist anymore, a trait it shares with Route 66. Watching it, one can see, as if frozen in amber, just how rich that lost world was – while, at the same time, how much of it remains timeless.

Kimble, with Gerard's gun, tracks down
the One-Armed Man in the final episode
Much of The Fugitive’s fame derives from the decision to resolve the question that had sustained the series, to present a final episode that would bring Kimble’s odyssey to a conclusion. The Fugitive was not the first series to provide such a concluding episode – both Leave It to Beaver and Route 66 can make claims in that direction. And, just as Route 66’s Tod Styles stops running* and settles down, Richard Kimble no longer has to wake up each morning wondering if it will be his last day of “freedom.” Both men have found what they’ve spent four seasons looking for. But unlike many series, the end of The Fugitive doesn’t try to tie everything up in a nice, neat bow.

*Or driving, in his case.

And because it doesn’t, we’re returned to one of the questions we started with: what is freedom? Will Kimble ever be free of the nightmares of his time in jail and on the run? Will he ever not have that momentary flash of dread every time he hears a police siren? Will he be able to cope with the fame and notoriety of having once been America’s Most Wanted, of having people who see him not as a pediatrician but as a symbol, not a man but a myth? Will the new relationship he’s apparently embarking on be a happy one, or will it crumble from the pressures applied by a past that can’t be undone?

One gets the feeling that Richard Kimble’s real story is just beginning, and that this new chapter will prove as difficult for him as the one just concluded. It would make a fascinating series, a different series. But in the end, even with the same characters, it wouldn’t have been The Fugitive. And given that The Fugitive remains one of television’s greatest series, we certainly have no room to complain.


Next week: He's the greatest detective who ever lived - just ask him.
Last week: #9 -
The Alvin Show

4 comments

  1. When The Fugitive first came on the air, the buzz was that the basis was the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, the Cleveland osteopath who'd been convicted of his wife's murder years before, and was still in prison when the series went on in'63.
    Sheppard's retrail finally happened a couple of years after The Fugitive went off. He was acquitted (mainly because the testimony of the Cleveland coroner was discredited), but the murder remains unsolved to this day (a couple of years ago, DNA evidence was used to exonerate Dr. Sheppard, but way too late to do him any good; he'd died a number of years before).
    In the words of his last lawyer, F. Lee Bailey:
    "Sam Sheppard won his freedom, but he couldn't win back his life."

    As to how a present-day Fugitive series would handle things -
    - I think you're wrong here.
    Even today, Dr. Kimble would have to be innocent, or people wouldn't stay with the series. Even a flawed hero can't be an outright bad guy in the end, not after a multi-year run.
    That's been tried a few times in the past; it's never worked before, and it won't work now.

    This past season, I watched the FX series The Americans, about the KGB sleeper agents posing as the All-American Family.
    The audience is not rooting for them, except perhaps in a negative way: the husband is starting to have real doubts about "the Cause", while the wife, at least toward the end of the first season, is a hardliner who's starting to waver a bit, mainly because of the even harder line held by their superiors.
    Significantly, their kids have no idea whatsoever about their parents's real origins; they're just American kids like anybody else's.
    Oh, by the way ... there's no way that anybody with a measurable IQ could posibly see this series as "rooting for the KGB", which comes off here as unyieldingly fanatical at the top.
    The problem some might have is that our own intelligence community comes off as exactly the same.
    I bring up The Americans here by way of demonstrating that for this show to have had even the limited success it's had, the possibility of redemption has to be there - for both the agents - and that's how the series is likely to play out (unless I'm wrong).

    ... and before someone brings up Breaking Bad, I've never seen that show - but I doubt that there won't be at least a possibility of redemption for that character (unless I'm wrong about that, too).

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    1. Very good comments, Mike. The Sheppard case has interested me for years, ever since the 70s movie with George Peppard, and I too came away with the opinion that he was innocent. As the subtitle of Jack Pollack's book said, it was an American tragedy.

      I haven't seen Breaking Bad either, but that was the kind of series I had in mind as well. I suppose one could argue that the search for redemption you mentioned could be found by the audience not knowing whether or not he'd done it, and hoping that he hadn't. If he was the kind of man that Kimble was, always helping others out, I could imagine a lot of viewers wouldn't even care whether or not he'd actually done it, I don't know. Suppose this is why I've never had a career in Hollywood!

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  2. When I watched the interview with Roy Huggins on the Archive of American Television it puzzled me why there was such a rejection of the premise. My surmise is that the motion picture production code or the Hayes code taught a generation of TV movie executives that the law must not be shown in a poor light. It's interesting that Leonard Goldenson gave the green light. Not the lower execs who continually rejected the idea with horror. This is according to Mr Huggins of course.

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    1. Thanks for the additional info, Joseph. Your surmise sounds right on to me; as I recall, there were even some Congressmen voicing concern about the show casting doubt on the legal system. I wonder if The Fugitive would ever have been picked up by NBC or CBS, insofar as they were so much more successful than ABC at the time.

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And now for something completely different.